Consider the plight of the roadbuilder: federal highway dollars have dried up and a major bid-rigging investigation has shaken the business to its roots.

But there is one little bright spot. Those dratted environmentalists now have fewer chances to shoot down projects.

That is because the Department of Transportation has begun trying to save money on highway projects by eliminating some of the toll booths through which a roadbuilder must pass before he starts to pave. Other agencies, from the Army to the Environmental Protection Agency, also have booths that the administration wants to close. DOT officials estimate that delays caused by duplicative federal requirements cost the $8 billion federal aid highway program about $25 million annually.

In March, Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis eliminated secretarial-level review of environmental impact statements for federally funded transportation projects. And two weeks ago, the department's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) published a rule that says a state no longer has to have an "Action Plan," a federally approved document that outlines when and how it will tell residents before concrete mixers start churning in their neighborhoods.

FHWA's Stanley Abramson said, "Nothing we've done or have proposed would really result in any sort of environmental degradation. There is a lot of redundancy and these changes are largely procedural."

There is alarm among environmentalists, however, that Lewis' changes constitute a full-scale attack on their hard-won gains. That fear is abetted by the fact that Lewis also abolished his Office of Environmental Policy and replaced it with a much smaller environmental division in the Office of Industry Policy.

The history of Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway demonstrates why both roadbuilders and environmentalists have a stake in this issue. That highway was approved by Transportation Secretary William T. Coleman Jr. after two decades of debate led to significant changes in plans of the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation: four lanes instead of eight, buses and car pools only during rush hour, provisions for a Metro right-of-way in the median and limits on the number of cars that can enter a particular ramp at a particular time.

But the cost of the changes was substantial. When the segment was first proposed in 1957, the list price was $61.9 million.

Now, with the segment scheduled to open in December, the cost is placed by Virginia officials at $275 million.

Fourteen environmental and transportation interest groups organized by the Environmental Policy Center have written Lewis to express their concern that the chiefs of the FHWA, the Urban Mass Transportation Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration "lack the necessary objectivity, perspective and resources" to be the final judges of environmental questions. But DOT spokesman Linda Gosden said highly controversial projects will still get secretarial review. "Ninety-five percent of the environmental impact statements that come in are on projects that involve general agreements in states that appropriate protective measures have been taken."

FHWA officials said that the environmental impact statements for federally funded highways are already reviewed by the divison (state-level) federal engineer, the regional federal engineer and the federal engineer at headquarters. Thus officials do not see why the secretary should have to review noncontroversial projects while construction costs climb.

Eliminating the requirement for state action plans is also a touchy issue. DOT officials say the plans require studies, hearings and notices that duplicate the requirements of the environmental impact statements. EIS's, they say, assure that the public will get plenty of warning.

But David G. Burwell of the National Wildlife Federation said state action plans were added in the first place because of a belief that the environmental impact statement process was not getting the job done. "By the time you get to the EIS," he said, "the decision to build has already been made." In a recent letter to Congress, Burwell pointed to the controversial but uncompleted sections of the Interstate highway system. "Almost all the easy projects have been built," he wrote. "The remaining projects are being held up precisely because the review process has worked and kicked them out of the normal project approval path."

DOT's new rule, while not requiring action plans, still permits them and it does require early public notification of projects.The action plans "have served their purpose," Abramson said. They were first required "when states did not have the types of public involvement procedures they do now."

What DOT officials really want, however, is to go beyond the changes they can make administratively and create a one-stop center for environmental impact statements for highway projects.

Right now, some highway projects require the approval of the Army Corps of Engineers, if dredging or filling is involved; the Interior Department, if national parkland or a property on the National Register of Historic Places is involved, and the Environmental Protection Agency if air quality is an issue, and it always is in an urban area.

The National Governors' Association has supported the one-stop concept, which would require legislation that DOT is now drafting. Charilyn W. Cowan, staff director of NGA's transportation committee, said, "I don't think anyone could argue that duplication gives any more protection to the environment. If delay or elimination of a project is the hoped-for result, it certainly has been effective, but it's not spending the public's money very wisely." CAPTION: Picture, Traffic heads toward the inner segment of I-66, the cost of which is now placed at $275 million because of building plan changes. By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post